The sounds of “The Greatest Showman” reverberated off the windows of the car and her tiny voice sang along. It was one of her new skills and, by far, my favorite–she is a beautiful singer to boot. I took solace in the melody and her voice as we continued on our way to Boston and her speciality appointments.
The juxtaposition of her blossoming development and the fact that we were traveling to urgently scheduled appointments for difficult issues related to her complex medical diagnosis did not elude me. Our life together is this constant dance of uncertainty and fear riding along side simplicity and gratitude.
One of her favorite songs began and she sweetly sang along “never enough, never enough…” My mind wandered and weaved forward to the appointments of the day and the Herculean task ahead and back to the heartbreaking texts I received in the morning from a fellow mother parenting a child affected by the same rare genetic disorder as my daughter. I tuned back in to her singing.
“All the stars we steal from the night sky
Will never be enough, never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it’ll
Never be enough, never be enough…
For me, never, never”
As I listened, I landed firmly in that space between fear and gratitude. The space is the vacuous home of “never enough.” It is the stark reality of my life raising a child with a rare genetic disorder and extraordinary need. All the moments we stole that we were never meant to have, all the money it took, all the change we made in this world to make it a better, more accepting place for her will never be enough for my sweet child.
It will never be enough to delve deep into her genome and repair the small deletion that sentenced her to a lifetime of complex and immense struggle. A mother’s number one job is to fix all that ails one’s child and I cannot. I will never be enough. We are further stuck within a medical system that is woefully unequipped to handle her needs now and in the future.
Nevertheless, we drive on–this time to another appointment for a Hail Mary treatment. There will be many more. The future will surely hold more therapies, new medications, treatments, clinical trials, and we will weigh the pros and cons of all. We will never stop because she is more than enough.
The song shuffled and she began to belt out a new tune. I was jolted out of my free fall. She really is the sweetest, hardest working, most glorious miracle; she is more than enough. She is love and my love for her is indescribable. Perhaps that is enough.
Yes, perhaps love is enough. It is what I will fill the space between fear and gratitude. I will fill “never enough” with love.
Drowning is silent; there is no grand cinematic splash, flail, and scream. True drowning is insidious and deadly. The once confident looking swimmer is suddenly gone with no yell for help and no sign of distress.
I am a fiery, powerhouse mother of two children with disabilities and I feel like I am drowning. My drowning is as silent and insidious as the real thing. My drowning is slow and it looks well groomed and smells of perfume accompanied by bubble bath; it gets to school on time; volunteers for the PTA; then, arrives at home to face the mountain of responsibility and sinks below the surface into the dark depths.
Do not let my functionality fool you; I feel like I am drowning.
I look calm and cool above the surface while my legs frantically kick below to keep me afloat. My legs are tired and cramped. They have been kicking for years–since the day I sat cherry faced (from steroid shots) and smiling at my baby shower pretending to be carrying a healthy infant. No one, save for a select few, knew the baby swimming around in my belly had a body riddled with tumors and would be born with the rare genetic disorder, Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). I was drowning in grief, in fear, in appointments for myself and my baby; and, I was excited to meet my growing baby, surrounded by friends and family celebrating her. A piece of me slipped below the watery depth that day.
My drowning is piecemeal. It has happened bit by bit over the years. I have lost pieces of myself to the crushing responsibility and lack of resources.
Today I tread tirelessly, a child in each arm, to keep us all above the surface. I feel the tug of riptide–the school calls, the emergencies, the medical crises, the new diagnoses, the day to day battles, the behaviors, the therapies, the endless appointments. It threatens to pull us all under in totality and I tread on because I refuse to let this life claim my family. I am buoyed by my love for them–by our love for each other.
I am tired and I need help; and, I will continue to tread on. You may not know all that is happening below the surface. I look like I can do it all but one cannot tread water indefinitely without support. And this world is just not built to support families like mine–the multitude of need is far reaching. The cost thus far has been high. The truth is below the surface there are pieces of me slipping away bit by bit while I wait for someone, something to help.
Nevertheless there is a bothness to this world that is mysterious. I look the model of strength, calm, cool, collected togetherness while I feel like I am drowning. I am losing pieces of myself bit by bit while I gain new perspectives on this wide and wonderful world I would never be privy to without my beautifully complex children. The love, pride, and joy I hold for my family gives me great strength and requires strength from every fiber of my being. I may feel like I am drowning and I am kept afloat by the hope I hold for our future–no matter how small it may be at any given moment.
Sometimes I’m silent
Quiet falling steady snow
My words pile in drifts
Deceivingly heavy hush
Beautiful and dangerous
I grew up in a small town in the New England; it’s rumored that when I was born there were more cows in the town than people. As a teenager, pre-license, I resented the long expanses of subdivisions, corn fields, and barns housing dairy cows; they kept me from freedom. I dreamt of big cities and bright lights; art and music; most of all, I dreamt of freedom.
I dreamt of a place where I was free to shed the cloak of expectation that shrouded me and manifest my own destiny. Perhaps, it was not this at all, but rather, the familiar dream of trading places. Perhaps, I was caught in the universal theory of mind game–what would it be like to be her, or him, or anyone other than me in this stifling place?
When you grew up in a town where everyone knew your name they tended to also know your business. Ironically, nobody there really knew me at all. It was the strangest sense of isolation. I spent my life surrounded by those who had the utmost familiarity and simultanseous estrangement. It was the confusion of being met with the assumptions of others then surprising them, letting them down, or simply being completely misunderstood.
This was a strikingly similar experience to parenting a child with rare and extraordinary needs.
Recently, another mother of a child with rare disease told me that she never thought about running away when she was young; but that she probably thought about it way more than she should as a parent to a child with special needs. Her experience is not unusual. Research has shown that mothers of children with autism have stress levels similar to combat soilders. Who in our line of parenting wouldn’t at least imagine themself somewhere, or someone else? Nevertheless, she likely wouldn’t share her deep desire to escape or trade places with most of her mama friends (yet I’m the one who goes writing it on the internet for all to read) for fear of being judged or misunderstood.
Parenting a child with rare and extraordinary needs is like living in my childhood small town–there is a simultaneous familiarity and estrangement. Most of the people we run into in our day to day interactions are other parents who have some understanding of what it is like to raise tiny humans–there is a familiarity. Yet, our world is so very different than theirs; it is full of complex medical jargon, life or death emergencies, therapies on top of therapies, the bittersweet meeting of milestones, and milestones that will never be met–there is a complete and utter estrangement.
Much like my adolescence, parenting my children has been an isolating experience. I am surrounded by others who hold assumptions of what both me and my brand of tiny humans are and should be like. Over the years I have learned to brush the well-intentioned yet oblivious, parents aside, but it remains a part of my daily life to deal with doctors, nurses, therapists and school administrators who I must educate and shake free from their shackle of assumption in order to see me, but more importantly, my children clearly.
Perhaps hardest with which to deal is the desire to feel free–it is similar to that adolescent desire for freedom. Parenting children with excptional needs can feel stifiling. All parents trade some dreams to care for children and for special needs parents it is more than that. There is no end date in which you can say, “when my child is in kindergarten I can return to work” or “I will get my Master’s when my child is in middle school.” We are forced to surf the wave of our child’s needs no matter how capricious the sea. There is an inexplicable trapped feeling that accompanies that reality.
Despite the stark reality of parenting a child with extraordinary needs, there is great love and great hope. Unlike the dial-up days of my adolescence there are a wealth of resources online to find your Tribe of fellow parents and decrease the isolation. There is also freedom in the very imagining itself–to dream of yourself as someone else, somewhere else–and to run away in your mind–if only for a little while.
I used to dream of bright lights and big cities, art and music; unfortunately, I spend way more time than I would like in a big city, Boston, for medical appointments with my crew. Not exactly what I dreamed of; yet, I still permit myself to dream. I find the time when I can to get lost in my favorite place on earth, The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. I stand at the foot of John Singer Sargent’s, El Jaleo and I imagine what it was like to be the Andalusian flamenco dancer.
I trade places places in my mind’s eye and imagine myself deliciously free and moving to the beat. And, in that moment my burden is lighter, my dreams more vivid, and my soul reinvigirated.
I have a magnet of El Jaleo on my refridgerator. In moments of deep despair, when I feel as though I cannot meet the challenge that has been bestowed upon me, I imagine myself the great Andalusian dancer and I buy myself a moment of freedom.
How ironic that a woman forever trapped oil on canvas can make my soul feel so free. I guess that is the magic of dreams–we can imagine ourself anyone and anyway we want to be; whether that be far away from small town New England or the high-stress, high-demand world of special needs parenting.
The screen came to life in graphic bursts of vibrant color and the sounds of symphonic movie scores swept through our home. The meteor crashed into Earth in a spectacular explosion spewing Vibranium everywhere; my son’s widened as he drank in a seven year old’s dream—the origin of a Superhero.
My wrist faintly vibrated, startled me and caused my heart rate to instantly rise; the Apple Watch strapped around my wrist was like some sort of Pavlovian torture device that induced momentary panic whenever it alerted and my daughter wasn’t right with me. I was stolen away from the screen and into my own world—like Batman called by the Bat Symbol. When the watch buzzed my body would instantly flood with chemicals readying me for the potential emergent phone call until my mind could process and reason with the automated physiologic response and back down. It was only a text message; I forced a breath out and willed my heart to slow and read.
“Last update they were placing #9 of 16,” accompanied by a heartbreakingly gorgeous photo of my friend’s daughter.
Surgeons were placing the ninth out of sixteen depth electrodes into the brain of my friend, Blair’s, sweet baby girl to invasively monitor her epilepsy (stereoelectroencephalography—sEEG) in hopes of gaining enough data to resect or ablate some of the abnormal tissue and halt the barrage of seizures caused by Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC).
I felt the blood rush to my face and suffuse my body with the superhuman strength that is required to respond when emergency strikes—damn watch! I brought my brain back online. I was like the Hulk willing the transformation to stay at bay.
I channeled my energy into my response of support to Blair, read our friend Bridgett’s response on the group text, tapped out what words I could muster, and thought of how improbable it was for our lives to have crossed. Blair lived over 4 hours away, Bridgett another 2 from there, and we had little in common practically; we were all brought together when TSC exploded into our lives like the meteor blazing across my TV screen and became the source of our superpowers, our connection, and our bond.
It was our origin story.
There is a before—there is always a before in an origin story—and an after. Splitting the before and the after is an event of immense, life altering significance—one that changed the person and became his or her new beginning. The person emerged from this event fundamentally changed right down to the fiber of their very being; when they emerge they ofter struggle to find their footing and own the power they have gained through the soul changing experience.
Once one was able to walk through the fires of grief and tumultuous period of change one emerged with new powers that other simply did not possess—superpowers. Like Marvel’s X-Men those with superhuman abilities gravitate toward each other and find others in their own tribe. Once there they share their own origin stories and it is what bonds them.
Special needs parents are typical people who all have an origin story and now possess some superhuman characteristic. We are protectors of the true Superheroes and we are powerful in our own right. To hand one’s child over to a surgeon for brain surgery, 1500 miles away from one’s home, while one’s other two children are back home with family takes superhuman strength. It takes a tribe of those with superhuman strength to hold one up. Blair’s strength as a mother was superhuman and she had Bridgett and me to hold her up—regardless of how different our origin stories.
The life altering event could be a diagnosis of TSC, cystic fibrosis, autism, a car accident, or something else unnamed, and for those who have just experienced this—welcome. Forget, “Welcome to Holland”; welcome to the Tribe. To those who are crawling out of the radioactive pit of their origins you will find us—in doctor offices and therapy waiting rooms, on Facebook groups, and in charitable organizations. We will whisper the stories of our begins to you and offer you our shared strength. You will learn from us and, in turn, us from you. We will become forever bonded. Our Tribe is one of fierce love, superhuman feats, and a dash of the mundane. We are the protectors of Superheroes and those who have gained superhuman love and strength from a life-altering event.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” There is no greater power than the love of a special needs parent and no greater responsibility than a child.
My hair whipped back and forth rhythmically, stray strands tickling the tip of my nose, as she squeed with delight.
“Fresh air!!!! Aahahah! Hahahahahaha!!”
The dark road stretched before us as the individual lines of tree trunk and limb blurred into mottled earthen browns, yellows, and greens; cars whizzed streaks of metallic hues; the world spun around us as we continued windows down, wind rushing in. The sound of rushing air and passing traffic was surpassed only by her delighted squeals. She erupted in spontaneous song; it was an exercise in pure and ecstatic joy. I felt my shoulders slacken and melted into the drivers seat–the hint of a smile crept across my face.
For me, the car is a 2,000 lb torture chamber; it signified everything tortuous, dangerous, and arduous about the day to day managerial parenting of a child with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex(TSC) and accompanying exceptionalities. I used to love to drive–the freedom, the escape, monotony, the sense of adventure–and it was yet another thing that TSC had tainted. Driving was a task, a risk, a means to an appointment, a tense, fast, emergent drive to the hospital, it was an interrupted family outing dashed by another seizure; I drove hands muscles tensed, knuckles white, nerves raw, and adrenaline flooded.
All of this melted away as my body loosened and swayed with the movement of the road; she was happy–ecstatic, in fact–and that was all I ever wished for on the darkest of days was for her to know happiness.
Cars blurred past and Kelly Clarkson wailed on the radio. It was early October and I was driving, belly round and in the way, headed for another glimpse of our growing girl. It was bitingly cold for October, clear and beautifully autumnal. We were headed out to start the celebrations for my husband’s best friend’s wedding the next day on the Cape. The world was hopeful and full of beginnings.
I undressed and lay on the cold table of the ultrasound suite drinking in the floating images of our little girl preforming her water ballet. We fought over middle names and barely noticed the solemnity that fell over the face of the sonographer. She became quiet and was concentrating taking picture after picture, measurement after measurement. She invited me to sit up and I did so smilingly; she informed me that there was something wrong with our baby’s heart and brain and that she needed to immediately call the maternal-fetal medicine specialists in, specifically the cardiologist. I was instantly furious; I couldn’t process; she was wrong and how dare she say without certainty that my baby girl had multiple tumors in her heart and some brain abnormalities.
The minutes stretched on for hours. My husband magically put himself aside to calm me until the specialist came. I again had to submit to for more images of the sweet child swimming around innocently inside. Then came a march of medical students to view the “abnormal fetus” and word after word levied like blow upon blow of mortally wounding weapon; they were giving her a death sentence. These m*therf*ckers in their white coats with their fancy degrees were talking about my child–our child–who was dancing around on the screen–lit up like stars in the sky, already the apple of our eyes– calling her a fetus and talking about fetal demise–robbing our cradle–without even knowing our names or looking us in the eyes, offering what they equated to a death sentence and they sent me home with a diagnosis that these m*therf*ckers didn’t even pronounce correctly–tubular sclerosis.
I just wanted her to live.
Beyond that, I just wanted her to know happiness.
I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed until I had no breath left in me. Then snow fell from the sky. Snow in early October. I thought it was a very cold day in Hell indeed.
The elevator catapulted me back up to the 17th floor. My shirt flew up and ballooned ever so slightly at the bottom as we went up–it reminded me of the wind blowing in the car window. The doors opened to the aquarium-esque elevator lobby outside the locked doors to the children’s unit; it filled me with dread and a macabre sense of joy simultaneously. Ellison 17 is a little slice of home–we’ve slept here, cried here, rejoiced, played with both our babes, railed against God and the cruelty of the Universe. I was buzzed in and ran back down to our room. She smiled chubby cheeks pushed in even more by the enormity of the gauze-wrapping turban that kept the EEG leads in place on her head.
“Mama! I made a duct tape purse with Hole in the Wall!”
“It’s so pretty, baby! Look what I found,” and I pulled a huge stuffed Darth Vader I got on Target clearance from my back pack.
Her eyes lit up and she clambered to grab the villain. I snuggled in next to her in the hospital bed, barely aware of the small computer on her back that was hooked into the wall by a wire, or the camera lauding over us like the Eye of Mordor recording every small quirk in movement to correlate it with the computer recording her brain waves.
“You want to play Dr. Panda on your tablet together or with your Ryan’s World figures?”
She snuggled in tighter. “Make a magnet house for Ryan.” She smiled, as best she could, ear to ear.
This was our normal.
Nine years past the coldest October day my soul has ever experienced and I still think of it often. What I think of more are the resounding giggles that rise from what seems like the base of her very being and erupt out her mouth like a joyous bubbling fountain when the air rushes in and whips across her face.
On that day 9 years ago, I just wanted her to live, my only other wish was for her to be happy. It has been my wish every time Tuberous Sclerosis Complex has tried to take her from us and every time this world and her body challenges her: let her live and let her live happily. Because, from my mind’s eye it seemed impossible to live happily with a body attacking itself with tumors and errant electrical discharges that overcome one’s brain and cause one’s body to go haywire, and with life threatening emergency after life threatening emergency. This is why I drive white knuckled and shoulders tight and walk around raccoon eyed on the daily.
And, she is a fount of ceaseless joy for me. I am reminded again, and again, by her that the purest of things–the sweetest, most exuberant emotions–can spring from the simplest, most unexpected places if only you let the window down a bit and give the breeze an opportunity to blow across your path.